It’s summer, the height of the wedding season, and while many Millennials may be tying the knot in non-traditional DIY ceremonies — with food trucks instead of caterers, cupcakes instead of tiered cakes, mason jars filled with wildflowers instead of formal floral arrangements — they’re likely still entering into a traditional “until death do us part” marriage.
Which is too bad, because according to a recent unscientific survey, Millennials are open to short-term renewable “beta marriages” — “unions you can test and deglitch, work out kinks or simply abandon course without consequence,” Jessica Bennett writes in Time.
An idea whose time has come … again
It’s not something Millennials dreamt up, however: Temporary marriages date back to ancient times and were practiced in Indonesia, Japan, and Islamic traditions, and by Peruvian Indians in the Andes. And trial marriages — similar to temporary marriage but entered into with hopes that the union would become permanent — were suggested in the 18th century by Maurice of Saxony.
Since then, people have seen the wisdom of short-term marriages so young people can basically “try on” marriage to see if it’s a good fit, and either renew it or leave it easily, cheaply, and without a lot of drama.
In 1888, paleontologist Edward Drinker Cope stated that marriage should occur in three stages: a five-year contract that either spouse could end or renew, followed by a 10- to 15-year contract (presumably to raise children) and, finally, a permanent contract (for elderly caregiving). A decade later, British sexologist Havelock Ellis envisioned temporary unions that would allow young people to avoid sex out of wedlock, and to have access to birth control and an easy divorce as long as they didn’t have children. Arriving at a time when women were gaining more freedoms, Ellis’ way of thinking resonated with progressives such as British philosopher Bertrand Russell and Denver judge Ben B. Lindsey, who championed his idea in the 1920s — a period when marriage was under scrutiny.
But when economic and political crises of the 1930s consumed public discourse, few were interested in reinventing marriage until 1966, when anthropologist Margaret Mead proposed a two-step marital model. Couples could live together as long as they wanted, and easily dissolve the union as long as there were no children, she proposed, but if they wanted to have children together, they would then apply for a more permanent marriage license.
More recently, beta marriages have been proposed in Maryland in 1971; in Germany in 2007; in the Philippines in 2010; in Mexico City in 2011. None have become law.
It’s true that couples could just live together, and an increasing number of couples across the globe are doing just that. But cohabitation is not the same as marriage — only a marriage license offers more than 1,100 government perks and legal protections (just ask same-sex couples why they fought so hard to legally wed). And studies have shown that society, and even many cohabiting couples themselves, view cohabitation as a less-committed version of marriage.
There are a few reasons why beta marriages and renewable term-limited contracts make sense.
No one needs to marry anymore. Women don’t need a husband for financial security, and people can live together, and have children and sex without marrying. So why marry? Marital contracts would allow each couple to clarify exactly why they want to marry, and enable them to decide what would make their marriage a success, based on their needs, goals, and values, no matter how long it lasted.
Because longevity has been the only marker of a successful marriage, spouses can go years, perhaps decades, being neglectful or even harmful, or taking the other for granted. A renewable contract would hold each spouse accountable, making it harder to become complacent, which many therapists say is a marital kiss of death.
True, some term-limited marriages many not be renewed, but couples would have to talk about the state of their union way before the actual renewal/expiration date — no one would get blindsided, as often happens in traditional marriages. The contract would detail actions each spouse would need to take to work on the marriage (such as marital counseling), and by when. It would also detail how the couple would split property, savings and investments, and other essential issues in the event of a non-renewal, removing much of the conflict and expense — as well as the stigma, shame and judgment — that comes with a typical divorce.
And, honestly, what’s more romantic than telling your partner every year or few years, “I choose you again,” instead of staying together because of vague vows made long ago, or lethargy, or fear of having to pay alimony?
In order for a beta marriage to work, however, the couple must agree not have kids during that time; it’s important not to involve young lives until a couple is committed to raising a child together. They also need to make the beta contract short enough — no more than five years — in case it isn’t renewed so both parties would still be able to have children with other partners if they desired. But if they do renew, they would then need to create another contract to address the next phase, such as becoming parents.
In some ways, we are already experiencing a version of beta marriages; 10 percent of first marriages don’t even make it past five years. And in 2013, 40 percent of American newlyweds had been married at least once before, according to the Pew Research Center. So much for “until death.”
Rather than worry about Millennials delaying or avoiding marriage, let’s give them a marital model that actually makes sense for how we live today.
Vicki Larson is an award-winning journalist in the San Francisco Bay Area and is co-author of “The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels” (Seal Press). She blogs at OMG Chronicles and is on Twitter.